William Byron’s special tribute prompts emotional memories of joy and pain for Hendrick Motorsports

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – William Byron’s No. 9 Chevrolet will sport a special connection to Rick Hendrick’s late son in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Darlington Raceway.

It’s far from the only reminder that Byron has been providing the NASCAR team owner lately.

As Byron, the sandy-haired 19-year-old with a fair complexion, has excelled in the Xfinity Series this season, his resemblance to Ricky Hendrick, the scion who was among 10 killed in the Oct. 24, 2004 crash of a team plane, has become more obvious – most recently when Byron won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“My daughter was watching Indy, and she texted me right after the race and said, ‘Dad, that’s spooky how much William looks like Ricky,’ ” Rick Hendrick said. “I’m kind of reliving some of Ricky’s early days with watching William now. He’s a special young man. Their mannerisms and everything. William’s super polite.”

William Byron waits in the garage during Xfinity practice at Darlington. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

During Saturday’s NASCAR America and Countdown to Green before the Xfinity race at Darlington, NBCSN ran a feature (video above) on Byron’s throwback tribute (which echoes the scheme that Ricky Hendrick drove to a 2001 win in the Camping World Truck Series) and the origins of the backward hat celebration that Ricky Hendrick inspired after every Hendrick Motorsports victory.

The tradition started through Ricky’s friendship with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who might have started the trend by wearing his hats backward during his first few seasons in NASCAR.

Ricky began mimicking Earnhardt, much to chagrin of his father, and continued the practice after retiring from driving and becoming a full-time car owner who won the 2003 title with Brian Vickers.

“I always said, ‘Don’t turn your hat around, don’t wear your hat in the garage like that,’ ” Hendrick said. “Then he won the championship with Brian Vickers, he turned his hat around on the stage that night. Everybody knew that was his trademark, but I always would tell him not to do it.”

It became a postrace victory tradition at Hendrick in the first race since the plane crash that also took the lives of team president John Hendrick, engine builder Randy Dorton, general manager Jeff Turner. After Jimmie Johnson won at Atlanta Motor Speedway, his crew turned their hats backward and pointed skyward in victory lane, which has become a part of every Hendrick Motorsports celebration.

“We were all very aware of Ricky’s like and his father’s dislike of the hat being worn in that direction,” Johnson said. “Ricky literally would design his hats to look good going backward and have Hendrick Motorsports in a certain spot, the car number in a certain spot. It was something that was just his style and what he was about. Of course, his dad being as buttoned up as he is wasn’t in love with the idea. But now it’s a great tradition, and it makes us all smile when we get to put our hats on backwards.”

It’s one of the only memories Johnson retains from the tumultuous week after the crash. The seven-time champion considered Ricky Hendrick a close friend who quietly helped lobby his father to get Johnson the No. 48 Chevrolet ride.

When Rick Hendrick called to congratulate him on the Atlanta win, both had trouble forming words.

“The emotions were so deep, I recall not being able to understand what he was saying because he was so emotional, and clearly, I was in a similar space, too,” Johnson said. “To lose 10 people, I found my mind would focus on one individual and quickly shift to another. It was almost as if we couldn’t get a break in our minds from the loss and the heartache that came with it. It was a really, really tough period of time. I still don’t know how we even got to Atlanta. It was so emotional and so tough, it’s a wonder we even got to the racetrack. That five-day stretch, there wasn’t a dry eye that entire period of time.”

Though they weren’t on the flight, Johnson’s wife, Chandra, and Rick Hendrick were on the original passenger manifest, which was read to team members after the plane went down.

“I knew my wife was with me at the track, but still that reality of hearing the manifest being read and she could have been on that airplane,” Johnson said. “Just swirling emotions in so many different directions. Just a really tough moment.”

The death of Ricky Hendrick cast doubt on the future at Hendrick Motorsports, which was grooming him to take over the company and allow his father to focus on his automotive empire.

Rick Hendrick had considered leaving NASCAR until a teamwide meeting a few weeks later at its headquarters in Concord.

“We lost so many people that day,” he said. “If you didn’t have a really unbelievably tight company, we wouldn’t have survived. They pulled together and went on to honor those folks.

“Your faith, your family and your friends are really all you’ve got, and that’s what you’re going to leave here with. And I felt that way when I saw William’s car, and I see this kid that looks like (Ricky Hendrick). It’s spiritual. It’s emotional. It’s special.”

Rick Ware Racing acquires NASCAR Cup charter for 2018, will also field ‘open’ car

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Rick Ware Racing (RWR) announced Friday that it has acquired a NASCAR Cup Series charter for the 2018 season.

However, RWR did not identify which Cup team it acquired the charter from.

As a result, RWR will be able to compete full-time in the Cup Series with the No. 51, beginning in the 60th Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018.

The team will also field an “open” team – one that will not have a charter and will have to qualify for every race it enters – sporting the No. 52 car number.

In addition to not identifying where it acquired the Cup charter, RWR is not identifying at this time what manufacturer it will field for either car in the upcoming season.

In a media statement, however, it did say that will be both be building and acquiring cars both during the off-season and in-season, including Chevrolet Camaros, Ford Fusions and Toyota Camrys.

The Thomasville, North Carolina-based organization is also increasing the amount of personnel, updating equipment, adding engineering support on and off the road, as well as upgrading its 20,000-square-foot shop.

The team said it will finalize its driver lineup for both the No. 51 and No. 52 “in the immediate future,” it said in a media release.

Six drivers drove a combined 29 races for RWR in the 2017 NASCAR Cup season: Timmy Hill (9 races), B.J. McLeod (8 races), Cody Ware (5), Ray Black Jr. (3), Kyle Weatherman (2) and Josh Bilicki (2).

The team’s two best finishes were both by Hill: a 28th-place showing at the spring race in Kansas, followed the next week by a 29th-place finish at Charlotte.

The team also entered three Camping World Truck races, with 2 starts by Jordan Anderson and one by Spencer Boyd. It also competed in one Xfinity race.

‘Old dog’ Matt Crafton preparing to make USAC Midget debut Saturday night

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Matt Crafton is proving it’s never too late for to try new things in auto racing.

Crafton, the 41-year-old driver for ThorSport Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, will break new ground Saturday night.

It all started a few months ago over dinner with Jack Irving, the director of team and support services at Toyota Racing Development.

“We were just sitting down, having dinner one night a couple of months ago and thought it would be a great idea for me to drive a midget,” Crafton said last Saturday during the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series awards banquet.

“I didn’t think it was too crazy when (Irving) brought it up,” Crafton said. “At that point, it was just casual conversation. I said ‘Yeah, let’s do it’ and he texted (Keith) Kunz to see if it was okay. Two days later, he told me, ‘Okay, pick where you want to go.’”

Crafton chose Saturday night’s USAC Indoor Junior Knepper 55 in DuQuoin, Illinois, as the place to make his midget debut.

He will make it in a car owned by Keith Kunz Motorsports.

On Dec. 6, the two-time Truck Series champion found himself sitting in a midget for the first time, getting fitted for the dirt car.

“About to find out if you can teach an old dog new tricks,” Crafton later tweeted.

But Crafton has already been fine tuning his dirt racing skills over the last five years. Since 2013, the Truck Series has visited Eldora Speedway, the Tony Stewart-owned dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio.

Crafton has been in every Eldora race, but before 2017 his best finish was eighth in the inaugural event.

Before this season, Crafton decided to really figure out dirt racing.

He and his father worked together to rebuild a Modified dirt car and in the downtime between Truck races, Crafton took it racing.

It worked out quickly, with Crafton coming in second in an event at Volusia Speedway Park in February.

Then in July, Crafton triumphed over Stewart Friesen to win the fifth Eldora Dirt Derby.

“It helped a lot,” Crafton said after the race. “Just learning what the track does. In the years past, I didn’t know what I was looking at to be totally honest. Just kept studying and kept studying.”

That Eldora win was the only victory for the No. 88 ThorSport Racing team in 2017, but it put Crafton in the Truck playoffs.

When the prospect of a midget race was raised to him by Irving, the pursuit of a third Truck title kept Crafton from it until the offseason.

“I wouldn’t say the Eldora win propelled any of this … but it’s definitely opened up some more doors,” Crafton said last weekend. “Now, everyone realizes how much I enjoy it and how much of a racer I am and that I love to race.

“I’ll say it again: I’m a racer. There’s a reason why I race dirt races and do everything that I do, and it’s because I want to go out and race anything and everything I possibly can. That’s why I got my own dirt modified, that’s why I got a go-kart … to be able to perfect road courses and that style of racing as well.”

One of Crafton’s teammates in Saturday’s race will be the defending Truck Series champion and dirt veteran Christopher Bell. Crafton’s also received advice from Chase Briscoe, who drove for Brad Keselowski Racing this season.

“(Briscoe) won’t be my teammate, but he sent me some in-car footage of him racing at DuQuoin and I’ve watched it 10 times, just to see what I can learn,” Crafton said. “I mean, you get about four laps, and then you try to race your way into the main event. There’s gonna be a lot of cars there, so it won’t be easy.”

“I talked to Bell this week, and he has a simulator with the midget on it, so I may go over to his house and run the simulator a little bit and see if I can figure out anything there.”

Crafton said he keeps getting pressured to take his dirt experience one step further and compete in January’s Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But Saturday’s 55-lap race comes first.

“I’d love to give (the Chili Bowl) a shot in the future. But we’ll see,” Crafton said. “I’m going out to DuQuoin to have fun; that’s the main goal.”

Four young Ford NASCAR drivers to compete in IMSA opening weekend at Daytona

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Four of NASCAR’s up-and-coming young stars – all Ford drivers – will get a nearly month’s head start of sorts for the 2018 season opener at Daytona.

A pair of 23-year-olds, Chase Briscoe and Ty Majeski, and 19-year-olds Austin Cindric and Cole Custer will all compete in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge January 26, part of the Rolex 24 weekend (Jan. 25-28) at Daytona International Speedway.

The four drivers will be mentored by Scott Maxwell, who won the Continental series championship with co-driver Billy Johnson in 2016.

Maxwell will also compete in the event, which will feature the four young drivers being part of a two-car Mustang GT4 team in the GS class. The pairings of which drivers will drive with each other will be announced closer to the four-hour endurance event.

“We have an outstanding group of young drivers coming up and we feel putting them in this kind of environment with Scott Maxwell will benefit them for the rest of their careers,” Ford Performance Motorsports global director Mark Rushbrook said in a media release. “You have to be good on all types of tracks to compete for a NASCAR championship and this will give each of them valuable road course experience in our exciting Mustang GT4 with Multimatic Motorsports.”

Cindric, Briscoe and Majeski were recently named to share driving duties for the No. 60 Ford in the 2018 Xfinity Series for Roush Fenway Racing, in collaboration with Team Penske and Ford Performance.

Custer will enter his second full Xfinity season for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018.

The four drivers plus Maxwell will take part in a three-day test session at DIS from Jan. 5-7.

When asked about how much they’re looking forward to the opportunity, here’s what the five drivers had to say:

CUSTER: “I’m really excited about this opportunity. I’ve never done any endurance racing, but I’m looking forward to having some fun and learning what it’s all about. This is obviously a big race and great way to start the season. Being able to race with the other guys is going to be a lot of fun as well because we’re all pretty much the same age and have a lot in common. I never thought I would get the chance to do something like this, but road course racing has really grown on me. I think it’s fun to learn the different sides of things and this is going to be a chance for me to learn as a driver and make myself better.”

CINDRIC: “For me with my background some of my biggest moments in the early part of my career have been with Multimatic racing Mustangs in the Continental Tire Series, so for me I’m coming home. I come from a different background than the other guys and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun, learn a few things and hopefully bring home some hardware because I know those Mustangs are pretty strong around Daytona. Scott and I have become really good friends and he’s been a big help to me in my career and I look forward to being teammates with him again and having a little fun throughout the weekend.”

BRISCOE: “This is something I certainly never thought I would get an opportunity to do, but I’m super-excited for it. This will be something new and I’m going to do a lot of it this year, so I think it’s going to be a good learning curve. I’ve only run two road courses my entire life and even though we ran decent, I didn’t feel like I ever knew what I was doing. Hopefully, I can get to the point by the end of this year where I know what I’m doing on a road course. Even though I’ll be driving two different kind of race cars, the principals of how you drive and the technique it takes will be something I can learn. I’m also looking forward to having a teammate and competing in an event where both of you have an impact on how well you run.”

MAJESKI: “I have virtually no road course experience at all. I’ve been on one road course my entire life and that was this past summer when I was sent out to the Ford Performance Driving School in Utah. Outside of that, I have not been on a road course, so this will be great for me to get some experience and be around people who know a lot about it. I’m looking forward to working with Chase, Austin and Cole as well. They’re good guys and I’m excited for the opportunity Ford has put in front of us.”

MAXWELL: “The Ford Mustang GT4 has been a great project from the start, and I’m glad to get back in the seat in Daytona. It’s just a fun car to drive. I’m happy to work with the young NASCAR drivers Ford has signed up, too, to help these drivers get acclimated.”

Report: Two race attendees sue NASCAR, Daytona for 2015 Coke Zero 400 crash-related injuries

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Two additional persons have filed suit against NASCAR, International Speedway Corp. and Daytona International Speedway for injuries sustained in a July 2015 race crash, according to a report by ESPN.

Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was involved in a last lap crash that resulted with Dillon’s car flying into the catch fence during the July 2015 Coke Zero 400.

Debris and fluids from Dillon’s car got through the catch fence and impacted several fans in the seating area. One lawsuit has already been settled, and two other men – Florida residents John and Wayne Vanpatten – have now filed suit for injuries they claim they suffered as a result of the crash.

MORE: Austin Dillon talks about Daytona crash on Today show

MORE: 5 fans treated, one at hospital for injuries from Austin Dillon’s airborne crash at Daytona

 

According to the ESPN report, the Vanpatten’s claim they were hit by a toxic fluid from Dillon’s car that was ingested by John Vanpatten and which sprayed onto Wayne Vanpatten’s arm. The men claim they are still recovering from their injuries.

The Vanpatten’s lawsuit falls within the four-year statute of limitations to file such a claim per Florida state law.

According to ESPN, NASCAR, ISC, DIS officials and the Vanpatten’s attorney all did not comment on the suit.